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JAMES WATT AND THE INVENTION OF THE STEAM ENGINE
 UNTIL a little more than one hundred years ago, the chief power
used in the production of food, clothing, and shelter was hand
power. Cattle and horses were used to cultivate the fields.
Windmills and water wheels were employed to grind corn and wheat.
But most tools and machines were worked by hand.
Men had, for many years, dreamed of a new power which would
be more useful than either work animals, sails, windmills, or
water wheels. This new power was steam. Yet no one had been able
to apply the power of steam so that it would grind corn and
wheat, spin and weave cotton and wool, or do any useful thing
at all. The man who succeeded in giving to the world this new
power was James Watt. Steam now propels ships over the Atlantic
in less than a week. It speeds express trains across our
continent in ninety hours, and it does a thousand other
wonderful and useful things.
CHILDHOOD AND EARLY EDUCATION
 James Watt was born in 1736, at Greenock, Scotland, not far from
Glasgow. His early education was received at home, his mother
giving him lessons in reading, and teaching him to draw with
pencil and chalk. His father drilled him in arithmetic and
encouraged him in the use of tools. When at length James went
to school, he did not at first get along well. This was due to
illness which often kept him at home for weeks at a time. Still,
he always did well in arithmetic and geometry, and after the age
of fourteen he made rapid progress in all his studies.
Even as a small boy, James was fond of tinkering with things.
This fondness was not always appreciated, as is shown by a
remark of an aunt: "James Watt, I never saw such an idle boy;
take a book or employ yourself usefully; for the last hour you
have not spoken a word, but taken off the lid of that kettle
and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon
over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and
catching the drops of water it turns into. Are you not ashamed
to spend your time in this way?"
Much of his time, as he grew older and stronger, was spent in
his father's shop, where supplies for ships were kept, and
where ship repairing was done. He had a small forge and also
a workbench of his own. Here he fashioned cranes, pulleys,
and pumps, and learned to work with different metals and woods.
So skillful was he that the men remarked, "James has a fortune
at his fingers' ends."
WATT AND THE TEAKETTLE.
The time at last came for choosing a trade. The father had
wished James to follow him in his own business. But
 Mr. Watt had recently lost considerable money, and it now
seemed best for the youth to choose a trade in which he
could use his mechanical talents. So James set out for
Glasgow to become an instrument maker.
LEARNING INSTRUMENT MAKING
He entered the service of a mechanic who dignified himself
with the name of "optician." This mechanic, though the best
in Glasgow, was a sort of Jack-of-all-trades, and earned a
simple living by mending spectacles, repairing fiddles, and
making fishing tackle. Watt was useful enough to his master,
but there was little that a skillful boy could learn from
such a workman. So he decided to seek a teacher in London.
There were plenty of instrument makers in London, but they
were bound together in a guild. A boy wishing to learn the
trade must serve from five to seven years. Watt had no
desire to bind himself for so long a period. He wished to
learn what he needed to know in the shortest possible time;
he wanted a "short cut." Master workman after master workman
for this reason turned him away. Only after many weeks did he
find a master who was willing to take him. For a year's
instruction, he paid one hundred dollars and gave the proceeds
of his labor. The hours in the London shops were long. "We
work," wrote Watt, "to nine o'clock every night, except
Saturdays." To relieve his father of the burden of supporting
him, he got up early and did extra work. Towards the end of
the year he wrote, with no little pride: "I shall be able to get
my bread anywhere, as I am now able to work
 as well as most journeymen, though I am not so quick as many."
In order to open a shop of his own, Watt returned to Glasgow.
He was opposed in this by the hammermen's guild. The
hammermen said that he had not served an apprenticeship and
had no right to set up in business. They would have succeeded
in keeping him from making a start, had not a friend, a teacher
in the University of Glasgow, come to his aid, providing him
with a shop in a small room of one of the college buildings.
Watt soon became a Jack-of-all-trades. He cleaned and
repaired instruments for the university. Falling into the ways
of his first master, he made and sold spectacles and fishing
tackle. Though he had no ear for music and scarcely knew one
note from another, he turned his hand to making organs. So
successful was he, that many "dumb flutes and gouty harps,
dislocated violins, and fractured guitars" came to him to be
cured of their ills.
All the while, Watt spent his leisure time in reading. The
college library was close at hand, so there was no lack of books.
Chemistry, mathematics, and mechanics were studied. By
learning all he could and by doing everything well, Watt
came to be known as a man "who knew much and who could
CAPTURED BY STEAM
Coal and tin mining had for a long time been important
industries of Great Britain. Shallow mines were easy to work.
Men and women carried out the coal or
 tin ore in buckets, by winding stairs. Or a windlass was
used, turned by hand or with the aid of a horse. Water was
taken out in the same way. As the shallow mines became
exhausted, deeper ones were opened. The deeper the mine,
the harder it was to lift out the coal or tin ore. Into these
deeper mines also came quantities of water, flooding many
of them. Unless a machine should be invented which could
be run at a small cost, to pump out the water and to hoist
the coal or tin, these mines would have to be closed. The
need of such a machine led to the invention of the first
successful steam engine.
Watt first heard of the steam engine in 1759. The idea
captivated him, and he began to read how others had tried to
make successful engines. Finding that the best books on
steam and "fire engines," as they were then called, were in
Italian and German, he took up the study of these languages.
In an Italian book he read about Branca's steam engine,
invented in 1629. Branca's engine was little more than a toy,
no use being made of it, except to pulverize saltpeter and do
other simple things of like sort.
BRANCA'S STEAM ENGINE OF 1629.
In a German book he read about Papin's engine, which was
invented in 1690. In Papin's engine steam was admitted into
the cylinder. The steam was then allowed to
con-  dense, that is, turn back into water. This formed a vacuum, or space
without any air in it, under the piston. The weight of the
atmosphere, which is about fourteen pounds to the square
inch, on the upper side of the piston, forced it down, and the
descending piston raised a weight fastened to the rope.
Papin never went further than the making of a model. But
his idea of using steam to make a vacuum, and of using the
pressure of the atmosphere to force down a piston was
applied a few years later with some success by Thomas
Newcomen made his first engine in 1705. Although big and
awkward, a number were used in England to pump out the
water at the mines. But they could not be used in deep mines,
as they could lift only six or seven pounds for each square
inch of the piston. They worked slowly, making only about
fifteen strokes a minute, and they were expensive also, a
single engine burning fifteen thousand dollars' worth of coal
in a year.
FINDING THE TROUBLE
Watt had been thinking about steam for four or five years
before he saw one of Newcomen's engines. Then it was only
a model of one, brought to him from the university for repair.
When he had repaired the model, he started it to going. It
made a few strokes and stopped.
 There was no more steam. The boiler seemed big enough, so
he blew up the fire. The engine now ran all right, but it
required much fuel and used up quantities of steam, though
the load on the side of the pump was light. Most men would
have thought nothing of this, and would have sent the model
back to the university. But that was not Watt's way.
Everything he did not understand was for him a subject for
study, and he never stopped until he
 understood. So he set to work to discover why the engine
used so much steam.
Steam was used, you will remember, to make a vacuum in
the cylinder. Watt found that to drive out the air and water,
enough steam had to be let into the cylinder to fill it four
times. Why was this? First, the cylinder was exposed to the
air, which chilled it. The cold cylinder itself, before it was
warm, changed considerable steam into water. Second, cold
water was poured into the cylinder to condense the steam,
and this made the cylinder cold again. Watt estimated that
three fourths of all the steam used was thus wasted in heating
and reheating the cylinder. Here was the trouble with
Newcomen's engine. Watt saw that, to remedy this defect,
a way must be found to keep the cylinder always as hot as
the steam which entered it, and the vacuum must be made in
the cylinder, without cooling it.
MAKING THE INVENTION
Watt spent much time and money in making experiments,
but nothing he tried succeeded. "Nature has a weak side,"
he was fond of saying, "if we can only find it out." So he
went on day after day, following now this and now that false
"One Sunday afternoon early in 1765," writes Watt, "I had
gone to take a walk in the Green of Glasgow. I was thinking
upon the engine and about how to save the heat in the
cylinder, when the idea came into my mind that steam was
an elastic body and would run into a vacuum. If connection
was made between the cylinder
 and a tank from which the air had been pumped, the steam
would pass into the empty tank and might there be condensed
without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid
of the condensed steam and of the water used in condensing
it. It occurred to me this could be done by using pumps."
With a separate condenser in mind, to get rid of the steam
after it had done its work, without cooling the cylinder,
other important improvements were thought of. In
Newcomen's engine, the upper end of the cylinder was open
to let the air act upon the piston. Watt now planned to put
an air-tight cover over the end of the cylinder, with a hole
for the piston rod to slide through, and to let steam in above
the piston to act upon it, instead of the air. This change made
Newcomen's atmospheric engine into a steam engine. In
Newcomen's engine the power was the pressure of the
atmosphere upon the piston, and this power acted in one
direction only. In Watt's engine steam was the power, and
the piston was shoved both up and down by it; hence Watt's
engine was called a double-acting engine.
"All these improvements," says Watt, "followed in quick
succession, so that in the course of one or two days the
invention was . . . complete in my mind."
The next step was to make a model, to put the invention into
working form. Making the drawings was easy, but to carry
them out was hard. A lack of good workmen was the chief
difficulty. There were no skilled mechanics in those days,
nor self-acting, tool-making machines; everything had to be
made by hand. Blacksmiths and tinners were the only men
that could be hired, and they
 were bungling workers even at their own trades. After eight
months of racking labor, the model was ready to start. It
worked, but despite all Watt's care, it "sniffed at many joints."
The condenser did not work well; the cylinder leaked, and
the piston was far from being steam tight. To add to Watt's
troubles, his "old White Iron man," a tinner and his best
workman, died. The cross-beam broke. Nevertheless, Watt
saw enough to know that he was on the right track.
BEELZEBUB, THE TRIAL ENGINE
Watt's great need was money, for it was necessary to build a
trial engine to show the value of steam power. He finally, in
1767, secured a partner who promised, for a two-thirds share
in the invention, to pay a debt of five thousand dollars owed
by Watt, and to bear the expense of further experiments.
The partnership was formed, and Watt turned to the plans for
the trial engine.
THE ENGINE BEELZEBUB, 1767.
As the trial engine neared completion, Watt's "anxiety for his
approaching doom kept him sleepless at night, for his fears
were even greater than his hopes." Alas! the trial engine did
not work well. The new condenser acted badly. The cylinder
was almost useless. The piston, despite all that could be
done, leaked quantities of steam. The whole machine was a
"clumsy job." From the way it wheezed, and snorted, and
puffed fire and smoke, the engine was named Beelzebub.
Months were spent in Wales,
overhauling him, but he behaved only
slightly better on second trial. Beelzebub was far from being
a practical engine, and he was left for the time to rest and rust.
 There is little wonder that Watt was downhearted and wrote
to his friends: "Of all things in life, there is nothing more
foolish than inventing." "I am resolved . . . if I can resist it,
to invent no more." "To-day I enter the thirty-fifth year of
my life, and I think I have hardly yet done thirty-four pence
worth of good in the world."
COMPLETING THE ENGINE
Watt had by this time spent ten years and several thousand
dollars upon his invention, but it was still only a dream.
Brighter days were, however, at hand. Matthew Boulton,
owner of the largest hardware factory in the world, at Soho
near Birmingham, and who had working for him the best
mechanics in Europe, became interested in the fire engine.
In 1774, he became Watt's partner.
Meanwhile, old Beelzebub
was shipped to Birmingham. The best mechanics of Soho
set to work upon him. One by one the separate parts were
repaired and improved.
 In a few months, he was ready for trial. Beelzebub puffed as
much smoke and fire as ever, but with all his bluster and
noise,—thanks to good workmanship, he went surprisingly
well. Everyone who saw Beelzebub run felt sure that the
invention would prove a success. Even modest Watt wrote
to his father: "The fire engine I have invented is now going,
and answers much better than any other that has yet been
made, and I expect that the invention will be very beneficial
WATT'S ENGINE GOVERNOR.
Though success was promised, much remained to be done
to make the engine practical. It was found, for example,
that if the load Beelzebub was pulling, for some cause
became lighter, he would run too fast; if the load suddenly
became heavier, he would run too slow.
Some way had to be found to make him run faster when
there was need of more power, and to run more slowly when
less power was needed. Two heavy balls were fixed to swing
around an upright rod. When the engine ran fast, the upright
rod turned fast, and the balls swung out and so acted as to
admit less steam. When the engine ran slowly, the rod turned
slowly, and the balls swung down and let in more steam. By
the use of this contrivance, or the governor, Beelzebub was
made to run at about the
 same speed, and when started and set to work, became his
Other inventions were made, and the separate condenser,
piston, and cylinder were improved. Thus, after years of
thought and labor, the steam engine at length stood full grown
and ready for all kinds of work.
MAKING THE BUSINESS PAY
To make an invention is one thing. To get people to use it
and so make it profitable is another. It is difficult to say
which is the harder. In any case, Watt's troubles were not
All the time that Watt was working on his invention, mines
were being flooded with water and had to be given up.
Among the first orders for engines was one for a mine in
Cornwall. Watt made the drawing with care, and the
workmen did their best, for much depended on the first
The engine was ready by the middle of 1777, and Watt went
to set it up. The people were eager to get a look at the
monster. Mine owners came from far and near to see it work.
Many were doubtful, and some even wished that the engine
might fail. But to the surprise of all it succeeded. It pumped
water as they had never seen water pumped before. The size,
the speed, and "the horrible noise of the engine," wrote Watt,
"give satisfaction . . . and the noise seems to give great ideas
of its powers." In a few days the mine was dry. It was the
deepest mine in the district, and orders for engines began
to come in. They came so fast that in the course of the next
 five years almost all the mines in England and Scotland were
Boulton, Watt's partner, felt from the first that the greatest
field for the steam engine was in mills and factories. When
orders for pumping engines fell off, Watt went to work on
a factory engine. The first factory engine was built in 1782,
and was for a corn mill.
A MINE ENGINE.
The use of the steam engine in mills was opposed by the
millers. They saw that to put steam engines to grinding
corn and wheat would do away in many places with
windmills and water mills. The working people also were
stirred up. They were led to believe that if the steam engine
was put in mills, it would take work away from them.
"It seems," wrote Watt, "the meddlers are determined to be
masters of us. To put a stop to fire-engine mills, because
they come in competition with water mills, would be as
absurd as to put a stop to canals, because they
inter-  fere with wagoners. . . . The argument that men are deprived of a
livelihood would put a stop to the use of all machines
whereby labor is saved. Carry out this argument, and we
must do away with water mills themselves, and go back
again to grinding corn by hand labor."
So strong was the opposition that Watt and Boulton decided
to build a flour mill, to show what could be done. They built
one at a cost of sixty thousand dollars, and put into it their
newest and best engine. The mill attracted much attention.
But it was not allowed to run long. So bitter was the feeling
against the steam engine that the mill was set on fire and
burned to the ground.
Though the mill was a total loss, it served its purpose.
Orders for factory engines came in apace,—orders from
France, from Italy, and from America. The advantages of
steam power were now apparent. Water mills were stopped
in the summer by the lack of water, and in the winter by
frost, while steam mills worked on, by day and by night, in
all kinds of weather, and in all seasons.
To bring the world to appreciate the value of the steam
engine was thus a hard struggle. Down to the year 1785
every penny made from the sale of engines, amounting to
more than two hundred thousand dollars, was put back into
the business. Besides, large sums were borrowed. So great
was the need for money that even the patents were mortgaged.
Time and again it seemed as if all would be lost. More than
once Watt and Boulton felt that this would be a blessing.
The mine owners, for instance, refused to pay for the engines
which had saved them thousands of dollars. Dishonest
persons stole and used their patents. They were continually
annoyed by rumors that
 a better engine was on the point of being completed. Efforts
were even made to get Parliament to take away their patents.
"We are in the state of the old Roman," Watt wrote, "who was
found guilty of raising better crops than his neighbors, and
was ordered to bring before the assembly of the people his
instruments of husbandry, and tell them of his arts. He
complied, and when he had done, said,
'These, O Romans, are the instruments of our art, but I
cannot bring into the forum the labors, the sweats, the
watchings, the anxieties, the cares which produce the crops.'
So everyone sees the reward which we may yet probably
receive from our labors; but few consider the price we have
paid for that reward, which is by no means certain."
Difficulty after difficulty was, however, battled down.
Parliament refused to take away the patents. Persons who
used them without right were punished. The mine owners
were forced to pay what they owed. The business, after long
waiting and untold distress, began to pay.
OLD AGE AT HEARTHFIELD
The partnership between Watt and Boulton came to an end in
1800. Watt was now well-to-do. Relieved of business cares
and worry his health improved. He built a beautiful country
home at Hearthfield. From there he made trips to different
parts of Scotland, Wales, and England. To Hearthfield came
old friends and the greatest men of England to visit him.
Inventing continued to give him the greatest pleasure. A room
was fitted up in the attic of the house, and there he would work
for days at a time. This room remains just as it was in 1819.
WATT'S WORKROOM AT HEARTHFIELD.
 On a monument erected to Watt's memory in Westminster
Abbey are these inspiring words:
NOT TO PERPETUATE A NAME
WHICH MUST ENDURE WHILE THE PEACEFUL ARTS FLOURISH
BUT TO SHOW
THAT MANKIND HAS LEARNT TO HONOR THOSE WHO BEST DESERVE THEIR
HIS MINISTERS, AND MANY OF THE NOBLES AND COMMONERS OF THE REALM
RAISED THIS MONUMENT TO
WHO DIRECTING THE FORCE OF AN ORIGINAL GENIUS,
EARLY EXERCISED IN PHILOSOPHIC RESEARCHES,
TO THE IMPROVEMENT OF
THE STEAM ENGINE
ENLARGED THE RESOURCES OF HIS COUNTRY; INCREASED THE POWER OF MAN
AND ROSE TO AN EMINENT PLACE
AMONG THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS FOLLOWERS OF SCIENCE AND REAL
BENEFACTORS OF THE WORLD.